PARKER COUNTY — Remember the images of Parker County residents whose water wells catch on fire? Now they say their problem has gone from bad to explosive.
They also say they have the test results to back up their assertions.
A handful of Parker County residents said it all started around 2009 when their tap water started to bubble and stink.
Their curiosity flowed into suspicion.
Their suspicion evolved into disgust.
Their water wells were filling with volumes of methane gas. Logic told them two newly drilled natural gas wells near their homes were to blame.
Their complaints to state oil and gas regulators at the Texas Railroad Commission went nowhere.
Tests performed by the drillers themselves showed only minor contamination. What methane was there, they claimed, has been naturally occurring for years.
They said one of the residents' wells was actually drilled 70 feet too deeply into a shallow gas-bearing formation called the Strawn.
By 2011, the Texas Railroad Commission declared the case closed.
Unwilling to give up, homeowner Steve Lipsky has now paid for his own series of tests. He used the same instrumentation and the same kind of tests conducted two years ago.
The findings now show the levels of methane coming from their water wells are off the charts.
One day earlier this month, the fumes coming out of Lipsky's water well measured 162,000 parts per million; 50,000 ppm is considered "explosive."
"And just by knowing that the methane levels normally at 50,000 parts per million is extremely explosive, this is scary,” said air monitoring technician Buddy Alexander with Stacy Systems of Fort Worth.
A few blocks away, at Shelly Perdue's water well, the same test was conducted with the same instrumentation.
Inside Perdue's house with the tap water running, the technician discovered another danger — the inside ambient air detecting 63 parts per million of methane. When asked if that figure represents a dangerous level of gas in Perdue’s home, Alexander replied: “Yes it is; yes it is."
So now, more than ever, Lipsky and Perdue suspect the gas well just down the street is to blame.
An environmental scientist hired by Lipsky, Dr. Bryce Payne of Pennsylvania, witnessed the recent tests and even conducted his own. His greatest concern: A buildup of methane gas inside Perdue’s water tank.
"That holding tank was functionally a methane bomb that could ignite at any time, explosively,” Payne said.
But tests conducted in 2010 by the drilling company, Range Resources, showed only minute levels of methane around Perdue's water wellhead.
The company hired by Lipsky recorded 140,000 parts per million in that same space three years later. The air around Lipsky's water wellhead tested even higher — 158,000 parts per million of methane.
Yet the same tests done by the drilling company in 2010 recorded zero methane.
But there's more.
Last December, Duke University scientists measured methane levels in Lipsky and Perdue's water itself. Anything above 10 parts per million is considered unacceptable.
Duke’s researchers found methane levels of 41 and 54 parts per million.
Tests conducted by Range Resources measured methane levels of only 2.3 and 2.8 parts per million.
Next door to Lipsky, Elizabeth Falconer's well water is so contaminated with chloride or salt, the wellhead installed in 2000 is corroded and flaking. She has spent thousands of dollars on a water filtration system since the gas wells were drilled in 2009.
"My water was fine when we first moved here in 2000,” Falconer said. “Today, without super cleaning it, I wouldn't drink it."
Earlier this summer, News Eight obtained documents showing that one of the two nearby gas wells called the Butler Unit experienced problems right after it was drilled. Natural gas pressure was building-up at the wellhead.
News 8 later discovered that the drilling company had not sealed off all of the down well gas zones with cement, as recommended throughout the industry.
A recently released Duke University study in Pennsylvania links well water contamination with faulty gas well construction.
Dr. Payne believes failure to properly cement the well is causing the problem here in Texas. "It is my opinion that it is likely to be because the amount of the contamination, the speed of onset, and recent observations indicate that it's spreading over an area that looks like it's spreading away from location of the Teal and Butler wells," Payne said.
Lipsky said regardless of the cause, he knew the contamination was worse than was reported to the state by Range back in 2010. Now he wants the state to act.
"I don't feel any vindication until the Railroad Commission or someone comes forward and admits that this is a severe problem," he said. "Regardless of who did it or what caused it, we need to determine what's happening, what's causing it, and try to stop it."
Range Resources stands by its test results from 2010, and says evidence and testimony has proven that its operations are not causing water well contamination which, again, they say is naturally occurring in that area.
They say evidence suggests upset residents’ water wells were drilled too deeply into a shallow gas formation called the Strawn.
However, the Texas Railroad Commission has re-opened the case and plans to conduct its own air and water tests soon.